Pros: Clever puzzles, good visuals.
Cons: Almost no story, must replay sections to reach all content.
The cave presented in the adventure game The Cave is more than it at first appears. As its malicious spelunkers wander through its cavernous depths, they find suburban homes, ancient castles, and Egyptian tombs, each representative of one adventurer’s past, or perhaps future. Is the cave purgatory? A shared illusion? A rehearsal space? I don’t know, and the cave, who is sentient and speaks to players in a genial, sonorous voice, never says. But sadly, I also don’t much care.
Developed by: Double Fine Productions
Published by: Sega
For ages: 13 and up
Platform: Wii U (eShop)
Release Date: Jan 22, 2013
The Basics: Puzzles, Exploration, and Many Protagonists
As the game begins, the player is given seven characters to choose from, ranging from a hillbilly to scientist. The player can take any three of these characters into the cave, the goal being to, well, make it out of the cave. The game doesn’t worry about motivations, nor about the likelihood of a knight and a time traveler and a monk all meeting up to go spelunking; it’s just what happens.
Getting through the cave involves pulling levers, pushing crates, blowing up rock walls and the like. You will often fall in spiked pits or get electrocuted, but death is very temporary in the game, which simply plops you back on safe ground. Cave is about solving puzzles, and this requires that the characters work together, one distracting a monster so another can kill it, or all three pulling levers simultaneously to open a door.
Each character has a special skill that allows them to enter specific areas of the cave. For example, a knight who can become invulnerable to damage is the only one who can make it past a series of flaming exhausts, while only a scientist can hack a particular security system. Once past the barrier, each character discovers a custom-made world full of challenges only they can solve, although they’ll still need the help of their companions.
The Story: Awful People With Nothing to Say
The character-specific areas appear to be recreations of events in the characters lives, and it turns out these characters are pretty terrible people. Throughout the game you will find yourself poisoning soup and burning down carnivals in pursuit of your selfish goals. The game can be gleefully wicked, and is probably at its most enjoyable when it is most perverse.
While it was developed by Ron Gilbert, the guy behind the original Monkey Island games, The Cave is surprisingly thin in terms of story. Motivations are skimpy, dialogue is rare and one-sided. The best adventure games are not simply collections of puzzles and places to explore, but rather intricate worlds you can immerse yourself in. The Cave is more like a puzzle game with a lot of wandering added.
The Gameplay: Decent Puzzles and a Lot of Backtracking
The game’s puzzles are generally pretty good, although they never achieve the difficulty or ingenuity found in classic adventure games like Day of the Tentacle (also co-designed by Gilbert). Unfortunately, the game suffers from a common adventure-game issue; backtracking. You will often have to wander back and forth through an area, getting something from one place and carrying it to another via a series of tunnels and ladders and ropes, at which point you’ll need to go back to the first place and bring something else back. Even worse, you’ll often need to walk all three characters to the same location, one at a time; the game really needs a simple “come here” command.
A larger problem concerns the approach of having seven characters who each can access a different area. Since you can only take three in at a time, this means that you need to play the game through three times to see everything. Each time you will have to replay some non-character-specific missions, and because 7 is not perfectly divisible by three, you will also have to replay two characters’ special missions. The game could have simply left solved levels solved, so you could walk straight through them, but it doesn’t. Adventure games are known for their lack of replayability, because once you’ve figured out a puzzle it is uninteresting to reiterate the steps of solving it. The Cave actually insists that you do exactly that, and it feels as though the game is punishing me for all my arson and poisonings.
The Verdict: Mixed. I Gave it Three and a Half Stars, But Just Barely.
The Cave is a nicely presented game. It has a fun, cartoonish style, is well animated and good looking, offers a co-op mode in which three people can each take a character, and features witty comments from the cave. But I was never very invested in the game. After playing through it once, and then halfway again with three other characters, I just stopped. The problem wasn’t really the game’s flaws, which are minor; the problem is that its strengths are minor as well.
The cave probably is purgatory after all, because like that supernatural location, the game keeps you from both heaven and hell.